In the Pink: From Marilyn to Mamie Eisenhower

Writing for The Conversation, Harriet Fletcher explains how the colour pink has been used to signify both tradition and rebellion – as exemplified in 1953 by Mamie Eisenhower, and by contrast, Marilyn – who wore pink to dazzling effect in Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Offscreen, however, she preferred to dress in black, white and beige – unlike rival bombshell Jayne Mansfield, who would outflank the First Lady with her own ‘pink palace’ in Los Angeles.

“From the 18th century court to the 20th century home, pink gained further traction in the 1950s. As British professor of design history Penny Sparke writes: ‘Linked with the idea of female childhood, [pink] represented the emphasis on distinctive gendering that underpinned 1950s society, ensuring that women were women and men were men.’

Whether adorning first ladies, Hollywood stars or housewives, pink in this era represented a traditional femininity grounded in fixed gender roles. Marilyn Monroe’s iconic pink gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) paired with her typecast ‘dumb blonde’ film roles and her pin-up past work together to reinforce the star as a sex symbol to be desired by audiences. As film scholar Richard Dyer argues, Monroe represented the epitome of sex in conversative 1950s American society.

On the other end of the scale, the first lady of the United States Mamie Eisenhower – wife of president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) – cultivated an image of the ideal housewife through her famous ‘First Lady Pink’ looks. Her stunning 1953 inaugural outfit was a sparkling pink gown embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones. She was well-known for her love of all things pink and transformed the White House with this colourful décor, so much so that the household staff called it a ‘Pink Palace’.

Beyond the 1950s, pink moved away from its associations of conformity and took on a new purpose: resistance … We can certainly see this in the way that punk musicians reappropriate the sweet and girlish connotations of pink to create subversive performances … Pink is also the colour of feminist activism. The 2017 women’s march saw protesters taking to streets in pink ‘pussy hats.’

The connotations of pink are not fixed, but malleable. Whether worn by film stars, musicians or celebrities, the colour takes on new meanings through irony and reclamation. The 2001 film Legally Blonde subverts the gendered ‘dumb blonde’ stereotypes associated with wearing pink by following the successes of a sorority girl who goes to law school.

When Madonna donned her pink Material Girl look, she positioned herself as the new Marilyn Monroe: a blonde bombshell for the era of Second Wave Feminism. She reworked Monroe’s tragic stardom into a narrative about female empowerment and survival.

Despite its longstanding associations with feminine frivolity and excess, pink consistently proves itself to be a transgressive colour. It moves with the times and does not shy away from parodying its own past.”